Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has termed the 50-year-old trade embargo an ‘‘outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy’’ and said the U.S. should engage with the island, just as it does with other communist countries such as Vietnam and China.
In his first term, Obama eliminated restrictions on the number of times Cuban-Americans can visit their relatives on the island, and the amount of money they can send back in remittances. He also has made it much easier for American travelers to get licenses to visit the island on cultural, educational and religious exchanges, though tourism is still barred.
Since 2009, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba has nearly doubled from 52,000 per year to 103,000 in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the firm the Havana Consulting Group. Trips by Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives rose from 335,000 to 476,000 a year during the same period. The surge puts the United States second only to Canada as the source of travelers to the island.
But just as American officials have met Cuban reforms with lukewarm indifference, Cuban leaders have dismissed Obama’s overtures as window-dressing, saying he has in many ways strengthened the embargo by going after companies that do business with the island.
Cuban officials have been reluctant to talk about the Kerry and Hagel nominations for fear their words will be used by opponents. But a pro-government Web site, Cubasi, published an opinion piece Thursday detailing both men’s past opposition to America’s Cuba policy.
‘‘Chuck Hagel has no problem with Cuba,’’ wrote the author, well-known columnist Nicanor Leon Cotayo. ‘‘On the contrary, he has demonstrated common sense to do away with one of the White House’s most anachronistic foreign policies.’’
Cotayo added that Obama has ‘‘real and legal options to maneuver and diminish tension in bilateral relations.’’
Others say they are not holding their breath for any change.
Alzugaray, the longtime Cuban diplomat, threw up his hands and shrugged when asked why he was not more optimistic that the stars would align for better relations this time around.
‘‘That dog has bit me several times,’’ he laughed. ‘‘I've often thought that now is the time, the possibilities are there, but always something has complicated things.’’
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.
Paul Haven on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulhaven